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COVER STORY

Building the Beast

Six continents. 100 concerts. $400 million? As U2 hits the road, take a look inside the making of a mega-tour.

April 20, 1997|Robert Hilburn | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

Willie Williams, the show designer-director of U2's "PopMart" tour, runs through some specifications for the concert's elaborate, wildly colorful and largely plastic set that's taking shape in a Las Vegas football stadium.

A gold 150-foot video screen. A 100-foot orange toothpick with a giant green olive on top. And then there is the massive arch that will be a signature piece of the tour. "It's a yellow arch," the Englishman emphasizes good-naturedly.

Williams is probably being oversensitive, though this is an age of quick corporate lawsuits and U2 is a band that has been known to ruffle feathers. There's no telling what they're going to do with the arch in the show.

The fiberglass arch was built by a boat manufacturer in the tiny coast town of Littlehamton, England, and flown to Las Vegas in 100 separate pieces--half of which were still en route early last week.

But whether yellow or a McDonald's golden, the arch was just one of thousands of details that Williams and the rest of the tour's production team have dealt with in the last year and a half, as they planned for what is expected to be one of the most elaborate and expensive tours in rock history.

The tour, which begins Friday night at the Sam Boyd Silver Bowl in Las Vegas, will cost $1.5 million or more a week to keep on the road. Along with the band's new "Pop" album, the tour illustrates the complexity and high stakes of big-time rock 'n' roll in the '90s.

"The competition these days isn't just other bands, but the big production values in movies and other forms of entertainment," said U2 manager Paul McGuinness last week.

"Mick Jagger came to [U2's flashy 1993] 'Zoo TV' tour in Dublin and he said rock 'n' roll had entered the era of 'Star Wars'--and I think he's right. I don't think audiences can be expected to go to football stadiums for concerts if they are not going to see something that is very spectacular as well as hearing something great."

*

It's last November and the air outside the Dublin offices of Principle Management, the company that guides the career of U2, is still damp and cold from an early morning rain, but there is such a flurry of activity inside that there's no need to turn on the heat.

McGuinness and the dozen or so members of his staff are energized on this Monday by the news that U2's weekend recording sessions went well.

"What a beautiful, sunny morning it is," McGuinness says playfully in an exaggerated brogue as he moves about the two-story offices, in a former warehouse along Dublin's revitalized docks area.

The recording progress means that "Pop," U2's long-awaited new album, will be finished within the week and can be in stores by March. That frees the staff to finally begin moving on the scores of decisions involved in the launch of the album and the band's massive worldwide tour.

Some things about pop music have stayed the same since Elvis Presley: Everything begins with the recording of a song, which can be accomplished with the help of just a producer and an engineer. The rest of the equation, however, has reached a financial and logistic level beyond anything Presley's manager, Col. Tom Parker, could have dreamed of.

In the 1950s, even the biggest album sold only about a million copies, and the machinery of touring was still undeveloped. Production values were minimal, and headliners' sets lasted only about half an hour. The biggest stars generated only about a few hundred thousand extra dollars. It's no wonder that Parker directed his star to Hollywood, which offered the then-royal sum of $1 million a film.

Today, tours by the biggest rock acts, such as the Rolling Stones and the Eagles, can generate sums that few movies earn. A band is typically on stage for two hours or more, supported by millions of dollars of staging, sound and lighting--even for a bare-bones stage show, such as the recent Eagles reunion tour.

With U2, it's not unreasonable to expect the new album to sell 10 million copies worldwide and the stadium tour to draw around 5 million people over the next year. After all the albums, concert tickets and souvenir T-shirts are sold, the receipts from the "Pop" project could reach $400 million--of which the band could net around $50 million, industry souces estimate.

Back in the bustling Principle office this morning, Anne-Louise Kelly is going over details of the album packaging in her office. Down the hall, Sheila Roche is on the phone, setting up the Australian tour and album promotion plans. Later, designer-director Williams will discuss last-minute changes in the stage design with tour director Jake Kennedy.

"There are times in rock 'n' roll when military language becomes inescapable," McGuinness says, sitting at his desk. "When you are starting out, you talk about things like invasions and battle plans in various countries because you want people to buy your records and come to see your shows.

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